VANCOUVER — It's difficult to speak of U.S. Olympic swimmer Dara Torres without the use of superlatives. Those chiselled biceps. Those sculpted thighs.
And especially those six-pack abs.
More than her athletic performance - she's faster now than she was in her 20s - it's Ms. Torres's stunning, 41-year-old physique that has bloggers, columnists and morning talk shows abuzz over the new standard of physical perfection for women of a certain age.
"She is fit, with abs that would make a Photoshop editor cry at their perfection," one blogger gushed after the nine-time Olympic medalist donned a bikini in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine.
"It makes me feel even more inadequate to know that Torres is a 41-year-old mother of a two-year-old. Where, I'd like to know, are her stretch marks and postpregnancy pooch?" wrote Deborah Kotz of U.S. News and World Report.
Further fuelling the hoopla, Ms. Torres bared her washboard stomach again on the cover of Time magazine's Aug. 4 issue.
Ms. Torres, who is competing in her fifth Olympic Games in Beijing, tops a growing pack of female personalities who are creating a stir with their muscular, vein-popping forms. Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker, celebrity fitness guru Jackie Warner and bicep-bulging television host Kelly Ripa are all members of the sinewy, hard-body club that is redefining the ideal female form and motivating average women to hit the gym in droves.
"[Ms. Torres] has got a great abdominal. It's a good body - a great body," said Gemma Doyle, co-ordinator of the personal training and aerobics departments at Vancouver's Kitsilano Workout.
At the same time, she warned: "It took a lot of work. ... I don't want people getting false ideals."
At her gym, Ms. Doyle has noticed women's fitness goals have slowly shifted away from simply losing weight to building muscle tone and achieving a defined, athletic look.
She added that increasingly older clients are defying traditional physical standards for women of middle age and beyond.
"I have some of the fittest elderly women I have seen in my life," Ms. Doyle said.
Vancouver-based personal trainer Ashkan Askarian said he has also noticed greater demand for conditioned abs and lean, sculpted muscles, particularly from his female clients in their late 30s and 40s.
"The No. 1 thing I get more than anything is people say they want to look toned," Mr. Askarian said. "A lot of people think with a toned body like Madonna's ... it looks sexy and it looks healthy, too."
But even as ripped female bodies are receiving more attention in popular culture these days, there's debate over whether the look is attractive and whether it's natural.
As much as they're inspired by high-profile fitness fanatics, most women are wary of appearing too muscular, both Ms. Doyle and Mr. Askarian said.
For every celebrity gossip headline that marvels at Ms. Parker's recently bulked-up physique, there are others that slam the Sex and the City star for looking too buff or too masculine.
Similarly, public opinion is divided over Madonna's increasingly taut and veiny frame. Paparazzi photos taken of her taken last month had celebrity gossip writers aghast over her "gaunt" and "tired" appearance.
The growing mainstream representation of hard-bodied females and the public's mixed attitudes toward them speak volumes about people's changing expectations of femininity, said Beth Pentney, a women's studies instructor and PhD student at Simon Fraser University.
Over the decades, women's exercise has evolved from an era of impeded movement, restricted by corsets and long billowing skirts, to the 1980s fitness craze, when Jane Fonda popularized aerobics as a feminine workout, said Ms. Pentney, who specializes in women in popular culture.
These days, women are pumping iron and enrolling in boot camp fitness classes. And the fact there's a buzz over physiques such as Ms. Torres's is in some ways progressive as it signals there are no limits now to how women can move their bodies, Ms. Pentney said.
She added that in a culture that commends self-determination, it's easy to understand why strong muscular female figures might be considered attractive.
"The image of that body translates into beliefs about a person's character. So if you have the willpower to work out six days a week, then you must be an incredibly strong character," she said.
Still, so ultra-fit is Ms. Torres's body that critics have raised speculation over whether she uses performance-enhancing drugs.
"Does she or doesn't she?" reporter Alice Park wondered in Time magazine, comparing the swimmer's build with those of steroid users. (Ms. Park goes on to note that Ms. Torres attributes her fitness to her training regimen and says she puts nothing illegal in her body.)
As flawless as Ms. Torres's abs might be, average women aren't necessarily striving to achieve her figure.
"I think [the ripped female figure] is a little more on the extreme," Ms. Doyle said, adding that the look is not only undesirable to some women, it can also be unrealistic and unhealthy. "For some people it would take an obscene amount of work to get them near to that [shape]."
She noted that elite athletes spend years, if not decades, honing their bodies.
Creating Ms. Torres's six-pack abs would have required rigorous hours of daily training with professional coaches and careful monitoring by dieticians starting at a young age, Ms. Doyle said.
Diet makes up as much as 80 per cent of a workout regime, and for athletes such as Ms. Torres, controlling their food intake can be as consuming as a full-time job, she added.
"Everything's measured out - proteins, carbs, fats - within a milligram," Ms. Doyle said, adding there's no magic formula to sculpting a six-pack since each workout regimen depends on the baseline fitness of the individual.
She stressed that her best advice to women is to set fitness goals that are realistic for their body types."You have to look the best you can be - not what somebody else is.